On the same day that writer Fin Kennedy released ‘In Battalions’, his report into the effect of the cuts on new writing for the stage, Soho Theatre opened a double bill of transfers from last year’s Edinburgh Festival, Bitch Boxer and Bottleneck. Both plays are by writers in their early twenties. Both are one-person shows (a sign of the times?). Although Kennedy’s report is gloomy reading, I can’t help but feel a surge of hope having seen these plays, which are packed full of bite and vitality.
Bitch Boxer, written and performed by Charlotte Josephine, is a tour de force. When 21-year-old Chloe Jackson from Leytonstone hears the news that women’s boxing will be part of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and that the site is on her doorstep, she decides that she is going to go for gold. Coping with the death of her father and blossoming love, she knuckles down and channels her energy into her gloves. The text is delivered at breakneck speed as we are taken from dodgy club to boxing ring, via a range of characters to help to shape her journey.
As Josephine developed the piece, she was training at Islington Boxing Club, and the physical accomplishment of this play is as impressive as the verbal one. The climax gives us Chloe’s fight that will qualify her for Team GB. As Josephine delivers a monologue-insight into the psychology of the boxer mid-fight, she bounces around the stage sparring with her invisible opponent. We feel every punch.
At its heart this is a piece about getting on with it. “I’m from Leytonstone,” says Chloe. “Sitting there talking?! Nah mate, get off your arse and do summink about it!” In a play which feels as tender and personal as much as it is a punch in the face, this is a call to action for disengaged youth. Often criticised for being apolitical and apathetic, Bitch Boxer flies in the face of inaccurate stereotype. It celebrates a generation which seizes opportunity, works hard and aims high.
Luke Barnes’ Bottleneck is an angrier play about a generation which has been betrayed. 14-year old Greg is growing up in the 1980s in “the boot” – an estate just outside Liverpool. Played with verve by James Cooney, Greg’s story is a familiar one of growing up. He (sort of) has sex; he (sort of) gets involved in drugs. It’s fairly unremarkable, and yet we are drawn into this character as he saves up the 15 quid to get to a football match. He’s like a Scouse Just William, but we sense there is a darker undercurrent somewhere. Greg is a bit worried about paedophiles. But aren’t we all? He is beaten with a belt by his dad. But it is not this moment that the drama hinges on.
While the first half of the play deals with personal milestones, Bottleneck turns on a milestone in Liverpool’s history. This is only Barnes’s second play, but he displays such mastery of craft that when the play shifts and reveals its secrets the audience is knocked sideways, and the atmosphere in Soho’s small studio space tightens. The play’s bottleneck feels like an appropriate metaphor for the dead-end Greg feels squeezed against. He is forced to live through traumatic events and becomes a victim of huge injustices.
But there is a whole different squeeze happening to the environment which nurtured these tremendous plays. Times are tough. Talented young theatre-makers are dropping like flies as the support they are given by theatres shrinks. But I can’t help but feel that, with the energy and spirit displayed in these plays by Charlotte Joesphine, Luke Barnes and James Cooney, we’ll be okay. Because writers, like Josephine, are fighters.
Bottleneck and Bitch Boxer run at the Soho Theatre until 9 March. www.sohotheatre.com